Reaching Catholics in Your Community

Determining whether your community is predominantly Catholic was once fairly simple. You’d see multiple parishes with names like “Saint Petronille” and “Holy Family.” Your local hardware would sell Saint Joseph statues (burying St. Joe upside-down in the yard is thought to help the process of selling a house). You’d notice ashen foreheads during Lent and couldn’t find a can of tuna fish at the supermarket during the same month. Today, however, the signs are not so obvious.

We see this change on display in Kerry Kennedy’s bestseller from a few years ago, Being Catholic Now, in which 37 contributors, most of them public figures, speak about the form and substance of their Catholic faith. As I then stated in my review, “Identity Theft,” these accounts showcase the widespread redefinition of contemporary Catholicism in America. Or take note of this summary statement by the Catholic author Peter Feuerherd in his book Holyland USA: A Catholic Ride Through America’s Evangelical Landscape:

In reality, Catholicism includes those with disparate authority and opinions about almost everything under the sun. There are liberal bishops and conservative bishops. The pope sometimes differs with his own Curia. American Catholic voters are regularly viewed by experts as a crucial swing group in every national election, too diffuse to truly categorize. In fact, some scholars of religion refer to Catholicism as the Hinduism of Christianity, because it is infused with so many different schools of prayer, ritual, and perspective, much like the native and diverse religions of India now referred to under the single rubric of Hinduism.

It is easy for us on the outside to conclude that Catholic faith and practice must be unified. We see the outward forms of the tradition: the clerical attire of priests, the common liturgy, and the ecclesial symbols that compose parish life. But this analysis will not suffice. Profound variety lurks inside, whether through particular religious orders (consider the differences between Jesuits and Franciscans) or between liberal and conservative priests. As a former Catholic, I observe three general types of Catholics in America today. Such insight can aid our ministry among Catholic friends and family.

Traditional Catholics

One expression of contemporary Catholicism tends toward fundamentalism. These “Traditional” Catholics operate with a pre-Vatican II (1962-1965) mindset, eschewing personal and subjective dimensions of faith. They often have an adversarial posture toward Protestantism and an aversion to personal Bible study. “My priest tells me what the Bible means,” you’ll often hear them say. Because Traditional Catholics do not recognize Protestants as legitimately Christian, they decline invitations to visit your church and avoid religious conversation directed at them or their family.

Before we are too hard on Traditional Catholics, we must realize that from their perspective they are simply being faithful. Think of it this way: How do you feel when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses visit your little sister, son, or granddaughter with an invitation to visit their kingdom hall? Because evangelicals view such groups as cults outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy, we feel defensive and even less than congenial toward those who attempt to undermine the faith. This is the sort of obstacle we’re dealing with when we talk with a Traditional Catholic.

Charismatic Catholics

This category is sometimes called “Evangelical Catholic” (see George Weigel’s new book, Evangelical Catholicism) and describes the Bible- and Spirit-centered impulse of Catholics who identify with the New Evangelization movement. Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) often gets credit for shaping the Charismatic Catholic identity, particularly in his exhortation titled Evangelii nuntiandiThe pontiff’s statement emphasizes the lay-empowered impulse of Vatican II in terms of the evangelistic calling of every Catholic. Paul VI stressed a number of themes familiar to evangelical Protestants, including personal relationship with the living Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the need to serve the larger community. Thus, Charismatic Catholics demonstrate a vibrant and charismatic experience of faith, concern for biblical teaching, and personal, Jesus-centered devotion. These men and women listen to Protestant radio, visit The Gospel Coalition website, and regularly enjoy participating in our church’s Bible study and prayer groups.

Cultural Catholics

When these people enter the hospital or complete a census, they register themselves as “Roman Catholic,” despite the fact that they’ve missed Mass for nine straight years. Or maybe they attend Mass twice a year, on Christmas and Easter (hence the designation “Chreaster”). They are the “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose elements of religion to suit their taste, like a vegetarian picking lettuce and onions from the buffet line at Bubba’s Rib Fest. Perhaps they go to church when they need something from God. Just like the nominal Protestant, these Catholics use the religious label even though Christianity has little or no influence upon their lives.

Implications for Gospel Ministry

It is not enough to understand Catholic doctrine; we must also pause to consider assumptions, priorities, attitudes, fears, and common commitments. Like good missionaries who carefully “read” their context, we can (and should) do the same. Specifically, we look for common ground that can support meaningful conversation.

It’s easy to find common ground with the Charismatic. Since we share a common commitment to the Bible, we might invite this friend to study Scripture or read a devotional book together.

Among Traditional Catholics, I take the posture of a student (genuinely) interested in learning about the religious customs that matter to my friend. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter, Feast Days, and Rites of Passage (e.g., Communion and Confirmation) are classic examples.

For all intents and purposes, the Cultural Catholic is like an agnostic—offering lip service to God’s existence, while resisting his divine authority. With the resources of Christian love and grace, I invest in this relationship, hopefully earning trust and credibility in the process. And when a crisis hits my Cultural Catholic friend (as it does for everyone) I hope to have the privilege of explaining the meaning of the cruciform ornament that hangs around his neck—that on a real cross a certain Savior truly hung, and then rose from the dead, so that men and women, trusting in him, would enjoy a living hope.

In pursuit of our evangelistic calling, Paul exhorts the Colossians to speak with clarity, intentionality, and grace (Col. 4:2-6). He envisions a church full of men and women who dedicate attention to verbal witness “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” In addition to considering how Scripture conveys this message, we have the opportunity to reflect on the particular beliefs and values of those to whom we communicate it—even among our Catholic friends and loved ones.

  • Josh

    Great article, but I have a few questions. What would be the desired end of the ministry to the Catholics in my area? Is the intent behind gospel ministry to Catholics to pursuade them to move from Catholic to Protestant, or is it simply to minister to those in need?

    I must say, I struggle with the gap between the Protestant and Catholic faiths and whether or not to count both camps as part of the same family. To what degree does doctrinal divergence play a part in understanding this relationship? And, should Protestant Christians be concerned with evangelization of Catholics? Surely these are questions whose answers may entitle separate post-length responses, but I’m curious anyhow.

    • David Graham

      Good questions. It seems to me that evangelicals sometimes have no idea how much agreement there is between them and the theologically conservative, post-Vatican II charismatic Catholics (both doctrinally and practically). Having met a number of such people at my ecumenical theology school, I have found that while we both desire the other’s “conversion”, what stands out most is our unity of opposition to liberal Protestantism and secularism.

      I would love to hear more from Chris about how he thinks evangelicals should relate to such charismatics. Is there any value in simply agreeing to disagree, so that we might cooperate in our
      opposition to contemporary ideology that most immediately undermines the gospel?

  • Frank Turk

    Chris — I think you have nicely summed up one way of looking at the diversity inside Catholicism, but the point is clear: there is actually a broad diversity in Catholicism. Treating all Catholics as if they are pining away for the Latin Mass is probably useless, and treating them all as if they all agree with Trent is also pretty useless.

    I think the most eye-opening thing you can do for a Catholic is go to his/her church with them, then bring them to your church. It will trigger all the right questions.

  • Frank Turk

    Also: you should probably know something about Catholicism, and also more than “Jesus loved me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” before you start this kind of conversation. Catholicism has a very interesting appeal to immature believers because of its formality and its (misguided) appeals to history, so if you don;t know what you believe or why you believe it, best to get yourself prepared with some church history and a review of your own theology.

  • Stacey

    Great article for people with mixed heritage. Half of my family is German and Roman Catholic and sharing the Gospel has been hard because of the differences in the way they view Catholicism. The older generation, my grandparents and their siblings, are traditional and the younger generation my Mother’s cousins and my cousins are cultural. The traditionalists will not talk about what they believe because they actually do not know what they believe and are fearful of conversations that get too deep. And the cultural Catholics just do not care and in Germany, at least, are leaning atheists. I did not realize how void the Roman Catholic church in Europe was until I talked to mother and realized that she could not articulate her Roman Catholic beliefs at all and I knew more about the Vatican Council and church history that she did. I have found that the Charismatic Catholics are mostly American and this is largely due to personal Bible reading, which is not promoted in traditional Catholic churches.

    • CG

      I have a relative in Europe who I would describe as post-evangelical-attending-Catholic-church-on-his-way-to-agnosticism. When certain points of official church doctrine were pointed out, he was either unaware, or made constant references to how the church makes him feel. Sadly, he seems to almost take pride in his doubt, and acts as if his skepticism gives him special insight.

  • Yolanda

    Thanks for the great article! I have often lead Bible studies with predominantly Catholic women. We have had some funny misunderstandings, but it’s been profitable for everyone involved. My feeling is…who cares if they’re Catholic? The Word will do the teaching, correcting, and exhorting. I point them in the right direction, avoid the theological debates, and let God do the work. It is music to my ears when they say, “The Bible says…” instead of “The Church says…”!

  • Lamati

    What about liberal Catholics? I attended a Jesuit college for a short while and was surprised by the liberal theology of the professor and many of the readings.

  • Kris Habacon

    Having moved here to Japan and gotten a job working in a Jesuit High School, and since meeting some wonderful priests who deeply love Jesus and preach the cross during school assemblies, I`ve had to REPENT of my “Christian vs. Catholic” beliefs and attitude.

    Not saying every Catholic is a Christian, but then again, not every Protestant is a Christian either…

    • Despeville


      Ask your wonderful priests about their beliefs about justification and the atonement of Christ and what is the nature of saving Grace. Wonder if you will still call them wonderful in the sense of what they believe… Unless of course those truths are mere “details”.

      • Kris Habacon


        What part preaching and teaching the cross and repentance and modeling love for Jesus everyday to students and colleagues doesn`t tell you enough about “their beliefs about justification and atonement of Christ and the nature of saving Grace”? Sounds like you need a bit of Grace yourself. Or do you need to get in argument about “details” with everyone on the internet?

  • Glenn Ferrer

    Thanks for sharing!!! God bless you.

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  • Jan

    Just so you know, we Catholics do not consider Communion, as you call it, or Confirmation as ‘rites of passage’. They are sacraments. Even most Protestants depending upon their denomination, recognize sacraments. As for the traditional Catholic, one should never presume to know another’s ‘motivation’ for following one’s faith. It is by faith that all Catholics practice, particularly in the United States.